CLEMSON -- Looking for a growth stock? Try the Tigers' linebacker group.

Clemson's linebackers endured their share of criticism last year. In four of Clemson's five losses, the Tigers allowed more than 162 rushing yards.

But in the second year under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, and with an infusion of young talent, perhaps no other position has greater potential for a major leap forward.

"We are starting to sort things out," Steele said. "We have five or six (linebackers) we feel like we can put in the game, which is up from three last year."

Last year, Clemson spent twice as much time in nickel defense as it did in traditional seven-man fronts. Defensive end Kevin Alexander was forced to play a hybrid linebacker role, and a true freshman, Corico Hawkins, started at middle linebacker in the bowl game.

Clemson ranked 67th against the run.

This year young, athletic, hard- hitting players like Jonathan Willard and Quandon Christian are ready after a year as understudies.

The tough, instinctive Hawkins has solidified himself as the starting middle linebacker. Brandon Maye is playing more instinctively at the weakside.

"When you are young, two to three years in the system makes a lot of difference," Steele said.

Heralded true freshman Justin Parker could be an early contributor with his ideal size (6-3, 230) and speed (4.62 second 40-yard dash) combination. Freshman Spencer Shuey is also in the mix.

Through the first two summer scrimmages, the first-team defense held the first-team offense to 2.3 yards per carry. And this is a first-team offensive line that returns four starters.

Tuesday's scrimmage marked a setback for the rush defense as Jamie Harper ran for 141 yards on nine carries, but the overall trend has been progress.

At the center of the youth and talent influx is the 5-11, 230-pound Hawkins. While undersized, Steele has had success in the past with smallish middle linebackers including Sam Mills (Carolina Panthers) and Ernie Sims (Florida State).

The staff loves his instincts and tenacity, and Hawkins now has a better grasp of the alignments and assignments.

"Last year around this time I was unaware of what was going on," Hawkins said. "You better run fast and hit hard, that's all I knew."

Hawkins says his goal is "to be kind of like how Peyton Manning runs the offense in Indianapolis ... To run the defense you have to know it all."

Despite the undersized Hawkins, the Tigers have adequate size at linebacker.

Christian, Hawkins, Maye and Willard have taken the majority of the first-team snaps through two-plus weeks of camp and the quartet averages out to 6-2, 221 pounds per man.

Christian is listed as the starting strongside linebacker, while Maye is attempting to hold off Willard at weakside linebacker. Maye started most of last season at middle linebacker.

"I have a chip on my shoulder," Maye said. "Some people are saying Brandon Maye can't do this, Brandon Maye can't do that.

"(The weakside) is a better fit. You can play more freely … It allows me to be more instinctive."

Maye and Scotty Cooper, who has been out with neck pain, are the only two upperclassmen of the group, meaning there might be youthful mistakes early, but also the potential for improvement.

How much potential?

"A lot," Steele said, "a lot."

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com, check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow him on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).